In everything we do and in every interaction we have with another person we are communicating a message, whether it be directly or indirectly, verbally or nonverbally. Some interactions are casual, pleasurable, and easy going (think catching up with a friend over coffee). Other interactions might be more emotionally charged, tense, or high stakes (think negotiating a raise or navigating a relationship). In these more challenging interactions, clear communication is key, especially when it comes to getting your needs met, whether that be emotionally, physically, or otherwise.
There are 4 primary communication styles that we most commonly use: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. Typically, we each find ourselves drawn towards one of these communication styles based on our personality, our past experiences, and our perception of the world. Below are some characteristics of each type of communication style (GoodTherapy, 2019) and the animal profile they are most alike as an analogy (Warner, 2021).
- Passive (the mouse): more indirect, puts others needs first, not entirely open in expressing needs/opinions, fearful of upsetting others.
- Aggressive (the lion): direct, demanding, may be hostile, doesn’t always consider others’ needs/opinions, more self-centered, the loudest and first to speak up.
- Passive-Aggressive (the fox): unclear, confusing, mixed messages, likely to result in internal conflict and resentment.
- Assertive (the owl): clear, direct, respectful, considerate of own needs as well as others’ needs, effective, collected.
Let’s now consider an example in which someone might need to communicate their needs and how they might do so with each type of communication style.
Scenario: Katie is a stay at home mom with 3 children under the age of 5. She is married to Will, an engineer who works outside of the home 5 days a week. Katie is a dedicated mother and wife and strives to make sure that her children live enriching lives every day. She loves her children dearly but finds that she is feeling more overwhelmed and exhausted as being a stay at home mom is no easy task. Despite feeling burned out and desperately needing some time for self-care, she feels guilty even thinking about asking Will to help with the children in the evening or clean up around the house as she knows his job is challenging as well.
How can Katie communicate to get her needs met?
- Passively: She does nothing different. She continues to provide all of the care for her children and maintains a spotless house so as not to inconvenience Will, at the expense of her own well-being.
- Aggressively: She snaps at Will one day when he comes home from work when he leaves his plate in the sink instead of loading it into the dishwasher. “Your money may pay for this house but you’re a lazy, absent husband and father and I’ve had enough!”.
- Passive-Aggressively: She mentions feeling stressed in passing to Will but any time Will tries to help around the house Katie tells him to sit down and relax and she’ll take care of it. Inside she is cursing Will for not doing more to help her.
- Assertively: After the children are asleep one night she asks Will if they can talk about something. She explains to him that while she is okay with being at home with the children while he goes to work, she is starting to feel more drained and unlike herself. She proposes a realistic solution that would allow her some time to take care of herself and engages in a healthy conversation with her husband discussing realistic ways that he can help her more around the house.
In general, assertive communication is the most effective type of communication style discussed above to be used in order to have your needs met. With assertive communication you are able to advocate for your needs in a respectful but clear manner while engaging in a logical conversation that considers the other person’s point of view, opinions, and feelings. With assertive communication, it is not uncommon to engage in a discussion that results in a compromise from each person’s point of view to come to a place of shared agreement and understanding.
GoodTherapy. (2019). Communication Problems. GoodTherapy. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/communication-issues
Warner, M. (2021). Communication Styles – the mouse, the Lion, the Fox, and the owl. Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://med.uth.edu/psychiatry/2021/04/30/communication-styles-the-mouse-the-lion-the-fox-and-the-owl/